Monday, September 29, 2008

'…And All is Right with the World'

(This is the second message in a series, A Declaration of Dependence: the Lord's Prayer.)

Matthew 6: 5-13

In college I read Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. It’s usually staged with two homeless looking guys standing under a tree waiting for someone to arrive. Neither of them has seen Godot before, but they wait for him, and try to think up ways to pass the time before (they hope) he arrives. 'Godot' is clearly a God-character, and the point of the play is that we wait for a visit from a God who doesn’t come—who doesn’t reveal himself—maybe even a God who doesn’t exist.

Over the past few years some of the bestselling books in the English speaking world have had to do with the existence of God. On one side Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have published attacks on the claims of faith in God, and have made the argument that most of the world’s problems can be traced to belief in God.

Dawkins’ book uses science to debunk religious doctrine, which is a little like using a frying pan to write your name. A frying pan is a perfectly good tool—just not the right one for the job. Another writer put it this way: ‘Having Richard Dawkins write a book about religion is rather like asking a vegan to write a book of veal recipes: nothing good can come of it.’

Hitchens’ book is mostly a retread of the old lie that ‘more people have died in wars over religion than in any kind.’ We talked about this last year, but let’s review again: War is always an awful thing, even when it’s necessary. Over the last century, which saw the most costly wars in human history, the causes were imperialism, fascism, communism and other non-religious or even anti-religious causes. Christians and Muslims alike have been amateurs at waging war compared to the atheists. A catchy phrase is no excuse for bad history.

But on the other side, Rick Warren found more than 30 million people to read his book on Christian faith. It’s a book that not only introduces the reader to what the life of faith might look like, but also makes the really radical claim on the very first page that this life is not about you. The Purpose-Driven Life isn’t a book of theology—it’s an introduction to a meaningful life of faith, and I recommend it to you if you haven’t read it.

We started this series on the Lord’s Prayer last week by talking about the prayer as the heart of the life of faith. That it functions like a human heart—taking in blood that is depleted and empty, and restoring it and sending it back out to deliver oxygen to the body.

The Lord’s Prayer is a gift that offers the same thing. We come to it in whatever condition we find ourselves—tired, frustrated, anxious, depressed, faithless and hopeless—it doesn’t matter. We come to it wherever we are and it meets us in those places. It has a way of renewing and restoring us, and sending us out again into service.

The Lord’s Prayer is a gift that reminds us that God is alive, that he loves us, and that he wants something from us. It’s a way of replenishing our faith, no matter how beaten up or tired or fragile it might feel. It catches us as we fill our lives with other things, like the characters in the play, and surprises us—it interrupts us—with a reminder that God is present and active and working.

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase: God’s in his heaven, and all is right with the world. Now I don’t know about the second part of that saying—on some days I think it’s hard to see anything right with the world. But it’s the first part that catches me off-guard sometimes. ‘God’s in his heaven…’ God exists. He’s really there…or here.

When that thought crosses my mind it interrupts everything else. No matter what might be going on at the time, when I get touched by that fleeting sense of God,

What does it mean for us when our lives are interrupted with the realization that God really exists? Have you ever thought about that? What does it mean for us when our lives are interrupted with the realization that God really exists?

(My mobile phone rings at this point, with a reminder to read the text.)

The text for today is the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a line that interrupts whatever we’re doing—like a phone call in the middle of a sermon—it disrupts our train of thought and turns our eyes and hearts to God: ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’

Now the Scriptures tell us that God in his heaven doesn’t always feel like good news. That’s why Andrew read Psalm 13 today. If you put the psalms in categories you find that there are more psalms of complaint than any other kind. I find that comforting, don’t you? It means that when the Hebrew people sat down to write their prayer and worship language, more often than not what came out was a complaint.

God’s in his heaven? I better tell him all the things that are going wrong—all the ways I feel let down by him—everything I wish he would do differently. The criticisms of Dawkins and Hitchens are nothing compared to the complaints served up by the actual writers of the Bible.

‘O God, why do you stand so far away?’

‘How long O God will you forget me?’

‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’

The writer of Ecclesiastes moans over and over again: ‘Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.’

See what I mean? The critics of the faith in the Bible itself are more harsh and more focused than the attackers from the outside. But the difference is that these internal critics, when they’re faced with problems and questions and struggles—when they feel hopeless and separated from God, the faithful call out to him. The skeptics’ challenge to us in times of crisis is to offer proof for our faith, but the response of the faithful is to offer prayer.

‘Our Father, the one who really exists.’

If the Lord’s Prayer is really at the heart of our faith—pumping fresh blood and new life and calling us into service, then it’s right that it starts with a reminder that God is real. Whatever else it says, it begins with an acknowledgment that God is God—and that we are not. That may be the most important take-away from this first line of the Lord’s Prayer:

‘It’s not about you.’ Now that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Last week as financial markets around the world started to meltdown, the Church of England activated its ‘rapid-response prayer unit.’ I didn’t even know that such a thing existed—it sounds like the closest thing the church can offer to a really cool job.

This rapid-response unit produced a prayer for people to use as a way of offering their concerns about their jobs, their finances, their futures, to God. It’s a pretty good prayer. It goes like this:

Lord God, we live in disturbing days.
Across the world prices rise, debts increase, banks collapse,
Jobs are taken away, and fragile security in under threat.
Loving God, meet us in our fear, and hear our prayer.
Be a tower of strength amidst the shifting sands,
And a light in the darkness.
Help us to receive your gift of peace,
And fix our hearts where true joys are to be found.
In Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It’s a good prayer—it functions a lot like the psalms of lament in the Bible. I suppose I wanted to read it because I think it’s very different from the Lord’s Prayer. The main difference can be found in the first lines:

‘Lord God, we live in disturbing days’ is focused on us, on our needs, on our problems. There’s a place for that—prayers like that are all over the Bible.

But the Lord’s Prayer interrupts our focus on our needs right from the start, and reminds us that God exists, that he’s there, and that he is listening: ‘Our Father, the one who really exists.’ It’s that expression of faith—even in the middle of our struggles—that gets to the heart of things and reminds us of who we are and whose we are. It pumps life back into our lives, and sends us out, ready for service again.

I been reading a book on the Lord’s Prayer called Ain’t Too Proud to Beg. The author closes his section on this first line with this statement:

“The Christian thing to do when things go wrong is not to reject the God of Israel as king of the universe or set ourselves against him, as the skeptics do. It is not to retreat into wishful thinking, selective memory, forced biblical interpretation, or revised theology to construct easier answers, as some liberals do. It is not to dismiss the problem stoically or fatalistically under the guise of being faithful, as some conservatives do. It is not to turn away in bitterness or pout and wish that things were better. The Christian thing to do is to pray…

And then he closes the chapter with this challenge: “And what about you? What is your dispute with the Almighty? The line between the greatest faith and the bitterest unbelief is nothing more than the willingness to kneel.”

As we explore the Lord’s Prayer over these next weeks—as we learn to see it as our declaration of dependence on God—my hope is that we learn and strengthen our skills to see prayer as our first line of defense against the problems and challenges in our lives.

Doubts and complaints and struggles are nothing new to God—the pages of his own Bible are filled with them. But the Lord’s Prayer is given to interrupt those issues—to clear the fog that keeps us from living and worshipping and serving as God intended. And that interruption begins with the simple statement of faith:

‘Our Father, the one who really exists.’


Monday, September 22, 2008

At the Heart of Everything Else

(This message is the first in a series, A Declaration of Dependence: The Lord's Prayer.)

Matt 6:5-13

This won’t come as much of a surprise to most of you, but I like watching some pretty nerdy science programs. PBS used to show different medical procedures. One of the best was a hip replacement surgery, where the ball at the top of the femur and the socket in the hip are replaced with a new connection that gives mobility and relief from pain back to the patient. The great part of this was that the tools they used looked like really clean versions of the tools I had for household jobs. It crossed my mind that I could perform that surgery, though I’m happy to say I never tried it.

I also watched a heart bypass. That’s the one where they take healthy arteries from the leg and use them to go around—to bypass—diseased passages in the heart. It’s an amazing operation to watch—typically the heart is stopped and the patient’s blood passes through a machine that keeps oxygen flowing to the rest of the body. Lately some surgeons have been doing the surgery with the heart still beating, because it has few complications afterward. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the level of confidence it must take to control a scalpel next to a heart that is still beating?

What I noticed in that operation—apart from the amazing skills of the doctors and nurses in the room—what I really couldn’t believe, was how small the human heart is. Have you ever thought about that? This organ that controls the blood flow to our bodies, that takes oxygen to every cell we have, that keeps us alive, is about ¾ the size of a clenched fist. A normal heart weighs between 9 and 12 ounces—about 300 grams. But it’ll beat about 3 billion times during our lifetimes—it has been in constant motion since the day we were born—it’s beating right now—and it’ll beat until the day we die.

Our text this morning is also a lot smaller than I thought it was—the main part of it is not quite 5 verses long, but it’s at the heart of our life of faith, no matter how small it is or many times we say it.

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

"This, then, is how you should pray:

" 'Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.' "

The Lord’s Prayer is a part of the Sermon on the Mount, an extended section of teaching by Jesus where he describes what the Kingdom of God should look like. We spent a lot of time in the Sermon on Mount last year—in every one of those messages we used this definition of the Kingdom of God:

The Kingdom of God is not a realm—a place with boundaries and limits. It’s Christ’s reign, his sovereign rule over his creation and his people—it’s his eternal power over everything, even death.

To fully understand the Lord’s Prayer we have to remind ourselves that Jesus taught it as an expression of faith and practice at the same time—that it takes us wherever we are and teaches us how to live as if we really believed that Jesus Messiah was the Lord of everything.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus has just taught through some of the most radically uncomfortable passages in the New Testament. He tells his followers to turn the other cheek—to give up their right to human justice in order to show their faith in Christ as King. He’s gone an enormous step further in saying that we’re supposed to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. As if that weren’t enough, next Jesus teaches that we’re supposed to give to the poor without expecting any attention or pats on the back for it.

Then he turns to prayer. Jesus makes a distinction between the people who pray for show and those who pray because they believe God is listening. The first group really just wants to be seen praying—they want other people to see them so they stand out on the street corners with one eye closed and the other on the audience, and pretend to talk to God.

For the second group Jesus teaches this essential truth about prayer: It’s about quality, not quantity.

Now we have to let the other sections of Scripture help us to understand this part. I don’t think Jesus is saying that we shouldn’t pray a lot. This quality/quantity thing is about the difference between sincerity and faith on the one hand, and talking to hear ourselves speak—and to have others hear what we pray on the other. In other parts of the Scriptures we’re called to ‘pray without ceasing,’ and I don’t think Jesus is contradicting that at all. He just wants us to pray like we mean it.

Over the next ten weeks we’re going to explore the words of the Lord’s Prayer in depth, and also the role of prayer in each of our lives. We’re going to dive into this prayer to find out what it meant for the earliest believers, and also what it means for us. Here’s the point of the series:

The Lord’s Prayer functions as the heart of our faith in Jesus Christ. It functions in a spiritual way just like the human heart works in our bodies.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, the parts of our lives that have been used up or depleted in some way can be renewed and restored and sent out again for the work of the Kingdom. The Lord’s Prayer is our declaration of dependence on God—it’s a way of coming before God every day as a reminder that he is at the center—at the core—at the very heart of our lives.

The Lord’s Prayer was the first to be used throughout the church as a liturgical prayer. It’s interesting that the prayer was always in the middle of the service—for a few centuries it was said after the breaking of the bread in Communion, and before the pouring of the wine. We’re going to pay attention to that disruptive quality of the Lord’s Prayer during this series—how it breaks in and reminds us of who we are and whose we are.

Now you’ll notice that the Lord’s Prayer in the Bible is slightly different than the way that we say it—not just the wording—there’s an entire phrase missing at the end. I want to talk about that for just moment as a positive thing—as a sign of the accuracy and trustworthiness of the Bibles we have today.

As scholars have found and translated older manuscripts of the Bible over the past century, they noticed that the last part of the prayer—‘for thine is the Kingdom, and power, and the glory forever’—wasn’t in the oldest texts. It seems to have been added in the 3rd century or so, and it has stayed in the way we say the prayer in church or in private.

That’s a positive thing because it points to how rigorously Bible translators have used the simple rule that what is older is most often more accurate. The Bibles we use today are as accurate as they can possibly be, according to the oldest manuscripts we have available.

But back to the prayer: What is Jesus trying to accomplish here?

The Lord’s Prayer comes to us as a sustaining prayer—like a drink or a meal that keeps us going for another hour or another day. It comes to us like a heart—the center of the bloodstream where everything passes through on its way to replenish the body.

I had a Catholic friend in elementary school, and when I spent the night there one of the things I remember is hearing this strange sound as soon as the lights went out—it sounded like whispering. I was used to sleepovers with cousins and other friends where as soon as the lights went out we started telling jokes and laughing and goofing off. What I remember about staying at Mike’s house was the sound of him praying the rosary as we went to sleep.

I asked him one time what it meant for him to pray those prayers every night, and he shrugged it off. I don’t know what kind of a theological explanation I was looking for, since we were about 10 years old at the time. He said that his priest and his mom told him to do it, and that that was good enough for him. And so he prayed those prayers every night, repeating the words in a whisper as he fell asleep.

Some people don’t like the parts of liturgical worship that rely on repetition, but a lot of Christian traditions work that way. In the English Book of Common Prayer and the Scottish Book of Common Order, the service of Communion is said exactly the same way each time.

When that’s balanced with a more immediate, spontaneous, expression of worship and prayer, the repetition of the liturgy teaches us something important. It reminds us of the unchanging nature of God—how he is the same yesterday, today and forever.

But in the Lord’s Prayer it’s even more than that. Every time we say the prayer it functions as a heartbeat—as one beat in the long journey of discipleship—of growth and trust and struggle and worship. The repetition of the prayer, as strange as this may sound, ends up being different every time we pray it, because we’re different each time we pray it. We would never look back at a single beat of our hearts and say ‘that was it—that was the perfect heartbeat—I don’t need anymore.’ The same thing goes for the Lord’s Prayer. We say it again and again—and its different every time.

What does it mean for us to pray this prayer today? If the Lord’s Prayer functions as the heart of our Christian faith—then it draws us in no matter where we are, and it renews us, and it refocuses us on the life of discipleship. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us of where we’ve been, even as it sends us out to where we’ll go in faith and love and service.

For us, over these next weeks and months together, the Lord’s Prayer is our declaration of dependence on God. There may be a part of that statement that rankles us, isn’t there? For the Americans here our entire national identity is defined by a Declaration of Independence—of being free and self-sustaining. The Lord’s Prayer forces us to re-examine that part of our identity. It’s a reminder of who we are and whose we are—of our need for God not just to sustain us, but also to forgive us, to teach us compassion, and to send us out in service.

Listen to how Eugene Peterson translates this prayer in The Message:

Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.

As we begin this journey together my hope is that we will pray this old prayer together in new ways, read it with new eyes, and hear it with new ears.

Let’s stand and say it together before our hymn this morning.

(Note: I am happily indebted to Telford Work's book Ain't Too Proud To Beg [Eerdmans, 2007] for help in preparing this message.)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Welcome Back Sunday

(The 9/11 meditation and prayer are below this post.)

What Are We Going to Do Together?
Mark 2:1-12

I had a great group of friends when I was growing up. There were three guys in particular that I met in the nursery of the First Presbyterian Church of Burbank, and we’ve been friends ever since. We got involved in a lot of things—once we snuck into the kitchen at the church and found a large cake in the refrigerator, which we promptly ate. It was only later that we found out it was someone’s wedding cake. Those people still don’t like us very much. You can ask me later what we did when we found some bacon in the church kitchen…

My buddies and I played baseball together, went to camp and ski trips together, saw each other through rough times and helped each other move more times than I can remember. We still get together when we can—we spent a weekend together in a beach house before Julie and I moved to London. One of them is an ER doctor in Philadelphia, one is a builder in Central California, one is a police officer in our hometown, and the last one is me. We’ve done OK, considering a lot of people at our church didn’t think we’d survive to adulthood.

I tell that story because our text this morning has always reminded me of my childhood friends.

Mark 2:1-12

1A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. 2So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. 3Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. 4Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. 5When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."
6Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7"Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"
8Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking these things? 9Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'? 10But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . ." He said to the paralytic, 11"I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." 12He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"

What a great story—there’s something so human about it, but there’s also an important spiritual dimension.

At one level this is about a group of friends, desperate to help someone they care about.

At another level, though, Jesus connects his demonstration of healing to forgiveness—to rebuilding the relationship between people and God.

There’s something so human about this story, but there’s also some important truth about who we are before God.

Now let me make this part very clear—it wasn’t sin that paralyzed the young man in the story, and it wasn’t forgiveness only that made him walk. Listen to what Jesus says here—he’s trying to make a point about why he came in the first place. He sees the faith of the young men in the story—that’s very important—but he also hears the nitpicking of the ‘teachers of the Law.’

He asks the critics around him which is harder, to forgive sins, or to make paralyzed people walk? He knows that they think the healing part is harder, and so he says: ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to offer forgiveness,’ he turned to the man on the stretcher and says, ‘get up, carry your bed out of here, and go home.’

Jesus used the miracle of healing to point to more important gift that he was offering: a path to re-connect with God in a meaningful way.

This is our welcome back day—it’s our day of re-connecting. It's a good day to pause and reflect on who we are—on who we want to be. We're left with is this question: What are we going to do together?

Now I spent a lot of time on that sentence. Notice that I didn’t ask: ‘What are you all going to do this year?’ I also didn’t say: ‘Here’s what the ministers are going to do for you this year.’ Nope—the emphasis here is on what we are going to do together—what this church family is going to allow God to do through us.

In the States, college football season is in full gear this week. What makes college football so great are the traditions that go along with the big games each Saturday. Some of you went to universities with a lot of sports tradition: At Ohio State a member of the band gets to dot the ‘I’ during halftime performances. When Army plays Navy each year there is an attempt to kidnap the other team’s mascot and parade it around at the big game. During the week before the UCLA/USC game, students stand guard around the big Bruin statue to make sure it doesn’t get painted in the evil USC colors. At the Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day, Cal Tech students try to show that even if they’re not big or strong or fast enough for football, they’re still smarter than everyone else. They try to hack the scoreboard computer and put up funny messages to the 100,000 people at the game.

But the best college sports tradition that I’ve ever heard of comes to us from Middlebury College in Vermont. For more than 40 years, freshman athletes have taken turns picking up Butch before every home football and basketball game.

Butch lives with his mom about a mile from the campus, and has been a fan of Middlebury since he was a kid. Butch also has Cerebral Palsy, and so as much as he loves sports, he’s never been able to play. When he was 13 his mother took him to a football game in the snow, and afterwards had a hard time getting him back to the car. Some athletes from the school carried Butch to the car and helped him home, and from that time on he’s been at almost every home game. That was 1961.

Here’s the way it works: Every game day two freshman drive to Butch’s house, lift him out of his wheelchair or bed, and drive him to the game. Basketball players do it during football season, and football players do it during basketball season. They take him to the game, sit with him, feed him, take him to the toilet, give him a chance to greet the team, and then take him home.

And it’s not just games. Students from Middlebury taught Butch to read. They helped him pass his GED exam—the equivalent of a high school diploma. And they threw a graduation party for him when it was all done.

Picking up Butch is a tradition that blesses everyone involved. Butch gets to be a part of a sports program even though his body won’t cooperate. Athletes with healthy bodies learn a little perspective about the gift they have, and learn to share it with someone who isn’t quite as lucky. And everyone gets reminded that this is way it’s supposed to be—with people being willing to participate, to help, to join in a tradition of service and cooperation.

We learn something about what church is supposed to be like from the ‘Picking Up Butch’ story.

We learn some important things about the church from our text, too. If you’ve been around here over the last few years you’ve heard me talk about the church as a community built on Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.

We see each of those in our text this morning: A group of friends care enough to do whatever it takes to help someone. Jesus senses their faith—their acknowledgement that he is who he says he is. There’s some risk involved, and growth in their belief in God’s love. And finally, they do something. Their fellowship, worship and growth in faith lead to action…together.

A few years ago Natalie Angier, a science writer for the New York Times, reported on a study of the impact of cooperation on the human brain. Scientists had demonstrated, against their expectations, that our brains respond in an overwhelmingly positive way when we join together with another person in a common purpose.

She wrote this: ‘Scientists have discovered that the small, brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy.’

What is it that makes your hearts and minds light up with quiet joy? Think about that for a moment. Maybe nothing does that for you anymore.

This year our focus here is going to be on things we can do together—on choosing trust and generosity over cynicism and selfishness. The work of effective churches is built on the friendships within the community—on the relationships we build as we fellowship together, as we worship together, as we grow in our faith together, and as we reach out in service together to people in all kinds of need.

As we begin another school year here at the church, let me invite you to find a place here where you can serve side-by-side with another person—where you can be an instrument of Christ’s healing and forgiveness and love for someone who needs to experience those things.

There are all kinds of ways to be involved: Sunday school, helping in the office, welcoming newcomers, joining a committee or even the Council, praying for the work that happens here. I have a pastor friend who just visited us this past week from California—she used to have a sign on her door that said: ‘Have you prayed for the pastor today?’ I like that one… There are all kinds of ways to be involved here.

So what do we take away from this text and message?

From picnics and Newcomers’ lunches, to Bible studies and small groups. We’re here to build relationships—with each other, with the community around us, and with the one who came and served and died and rose again, even Jesus Christ. Through those relationships we want to be people who point to the path Christ offers to re-connect with God in a meaningful way.

I started this with the question: What are we going to do together?

My prayer for us is that the answers to that question would fill this room up to the balcony.

My prayer for us is that we come to believe that with faith and the help of this community, we can do anything God wants from us.

My prayer for us is that we can take the mature step of being willing to serve, rather than worrying if we’re able or ready to serve.

What are we going to do together this year? Stay tuned. We’re going to talk about that all year.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Meditation and a Prayer

I learned some new things this past week.

Last Friday a naval officer called and asked if I would take part in a ceremony at the US Embassy where he was going receive a promotion and a medal. I agreed to do it, and gave it a lot of thought over the weekend. These opportunities present challenges for ministers. If we are to take the Scriptures seriously—all of the Scriptures—then we live in the tension between texts that often describe war in a positive light, and the God who reveals himself to us as the Prince of Peace. See what I mean? This was not a simple assignment.

Still, as I read the biography of this officer and heard the citation describing how he earned his Bronze Star, I found myself—and I don’t really know how else to describe it—undeniably proud of him. This young man was raised in San Marino, a very wealthy community near Los Angeles, and attended an Ivy League university. In his freshman year he joined the ROTC, and joined the Navy after finishing college in 1993. He completed his naval service, got married, and went to work as an investment banker with JP Morgan (that’s an important detail). When the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq required his specific skills, he was called back into active duty and served several more years, often in direct combat situations.

I tell that part of the story because there is an impression out there that this simply doesn’t happen anymore—that people who grow up in privilege and go to Ivy League institutions don’t go into military service. And who knows? Maybe it doesn’t happen very often, but it did in this case, and I was glad to help recognize his service.

There was one other detail about the day that caught me off-guard. When this man was called back into active service from his lucrative banking job, not only did JP Morgan hold his job for him (which they were required to do), but they paid him his salary while he was away. That surprised me so much that I found my eyes full of tears when I heard it, but it wasn’t all. To show their support for their colleague—and for his colleagues in military service—JP Morgan launched an employee-sponsored program which raised more than $50,000 to send care packages to men and women in the field.

So let me get this straight. A guy who grew up in San Marino and went to an elite university chooses military service instead of an immediate payoff in the business world. When he does join the private sector, he gets called back to duty and a bunch of other people with similarly privileged backgrounds decide to support him at significant cost to themselves. You can see why this is a story that needed telling.

Today we remember the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and (we often forget to say) on four innocent commercial airliners. The memory of those events still makes me shudder with fear—I can’t watch the replays of the planes crashing into the towers. Whatever you might think about our response to those events over the last 7 years—however radicalized our political life has become in the time since then—I think we have a responsibility to respect the men and women who chose to respond by placing themselves in the path of future attacks. I’m not much of a pacifist. But on the other hand I also believe that strict restraint is the most important quality of military leadership. I learned this week that my own conflicted feelings about wars did not prevent me from being a little in awe of the people who have to go out and fight them.

Like I said, I was honored to be a part of this event, and proud of people like this young man who risked and served without complaint or question. After a brief welcome from a US Navy admiral, I gave the following prayer:

Let us pray.

Gracious God: For the gift of a new day, for the blessings of friendship and comradeship, and for freedoms purchased and defended, we pause this afternoon to give you thanks.

Today we gather to honor the service of one young man. For his bravery and commitment—for his faith and for his hard work. We thank you for bringing him home safely to his wife, and to his friends and colleagues at work. We thank you for the way his knowledge and skill have made a difference in the world, and for the way you have used him in a time of conflict, to bring us ever so slightly closer to a time of peace.

But even as we honor him today, we remember those who served with him—the others who have returned to their lives unscathed, and those who returned with wounded bodies and troubled hearts and minds. We remember with sadness those who will not be coming home at all—those whose lives were given to complete the mission at hand. We pause in silence to remember them now.

Our Lord and God, we long for the day when armed conflict will no longer be necessary, when nations can live in peace and harmony as you intended. But for now we know that that day has not yet come, and so we give you thanks for this man and for the other men and women who continue to stand between us and those who would seek to do us harm. May you bless them with safety and courage and protection, until the time when true peace—your peace—will reign forever.


Monday, September 08, 2008

An Invitation to Community

(This is from a piece I wrote for a magazine aimed at Americans living in the UK.)

When you think about it, churches are pretty counter-cultural institutions. They’re voluntary organizations built around a common faith. For the most part they’re funded through the donations of the people who attend. And they often spend a lot of time and money helping people who may never pass through their doors. Isn’t that strange? Churches, no matter how traditional or ingrained in the culture they may be, often cut precisely against that grain.

That’s a good thing.

I represent a Christian church in an urban area, but what I just said goes for most communities of faith. By their very existence—and how they maintain that existence—they are revolutionary, even radical, places. Belief in a transcendent God who seeks out opportunities to be with his people, while giving our time and money away to strangers, isn’t exactly how the culture expects sensible people to behave. I think that’s what makes churches and other faith communities special. I also think it’s why people continue to seek them out when they move to new cities—new countries.

I believe that we are designed for that kind of community—for being together and working together and laughing and crying and grieving together. It’s in our hard-wiring to gather and to share, and when we do it we feel better…more alive…more human. A few years ago Natalie Angier, a science reporter for the New York Times, wrote this: “Scientists have discovered that the small, brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy.”


Cooperating…choosing trust over cynicism…being generous instead of selfish—these are the choices that make life rich indeed, if not worth living in the first place. We can’t always rely on science or other research to confirm what’s best for us (I mean, have you ever heard an evolutionary biologist try to make sense out of sacrificial love?), but this statement has a resounding ring of truth to it.

The Christian Scriptures have a word to describe this revolutionary kind of community. It’s called koinonia. This word has a wonderfully wide range of meaning: it can describe the act of sharing or giving or participating within a group, but can also describe the state of being connected to another person in a meaningful way.

In church life we often refer to koinonia as fellowship. In my congregation we define fellowship as everything from the way we’re greeted at the door, to the depth of friendships we build in church over a long period of time. Whatever else it is, fellowship is the willful, courageous, revolutionary act of “choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness.” If we think back on the rest of Natalie Angier’s quote, then we’re left with one very important question.

What makes your “brain light up with quiet joy,” or any kind of joy for that matter?

Let me invite you. No, wait. That’s not quite strong enough. Let me urge you to seek out places where you can experience true community—true fellowship. That could be a church or synagogue, a coffee klatch or any of the other informal ways to be in the presence of other people. If you’re new here, find someone who’s been here a while and ask some questions. If you’ve been here for years and think that there are no new adventures for you, find someone who’s just moving in and pass along some of what you’ve learned about living here.

We are hard-wired to be together—to share and cooperate and explore together. As we all begin this new school year, my wish for all of you is that you’ll find yourself surrounded by friends, old and new, and that each of your hearts and minds will light up with the joy that comes from true fellowship.

God’s richest blessing to you all this autumn season!

Monday, September 01, 2008

'David: A Man After God's Own Heart'

Acts 13:16-21

(This is an excerpt from a sermon in our series on People of the Old Testament.)

16Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! 17The God of the people of Israel chose our fathers; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt, with mighty power he led them out of that country, 18he endured their conduct for about forty years in the desert, 19he overthrew seven nations in Canaan and gave their land to his people as their inheritance. 20All this took about 450 years.
“After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. 21Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. 22After removing Saul, he made David their king. He testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’

David's life is huge. After defeating Goliath, David becomes a mighty soldier in Saul’s army. He marries Saul’s daughter and he’s best friends with Saul’s son Jonathan. The undersized shepherd-poet becomes a national hero, and eventually becomes King of Israel. He guides his country through a civil war and unifies it into one nation. He brings the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. He tries to lead the country into faithful worship and service in God’s name.

But David isn’t a saint. This man who followed God—who was called a man after God’s own heart—was pretty flawed, too. His family story reads like a soap opera. He doesn’t raise his kids very well, and they end up fighting and killing each other. One of them ends up trying to take the kingdom over by force. David seems to have a hard time walking into a village without slaughtering everyone in sight. And to cap it off, when he sees a beautiful woman bathing from his window, he begins an affair with her and has her husband killed. The psalm we read as our prayer of confession this morning was the psalm David wrote to repent of his sin with Bathsheba.

And yet, it’s David as the writer of many of the psalms who gives us our most powerful worship language. Some of them are praises. Even more of them are laments or complaints. It’s David who gives us the words to describe what it means to love and trust and believe in a God we don’t get to see.

Those psalms still speak to us today, 3000 years after they were written—they teach us to worship and pray in ways that we never quite see coming. A few years ago a Scottish publisher decided to issue individual books of the Bible, with introductions written by famous people. Bono, of the band U2, wrote the introduction to the Book of Psalms. U2 used to close every concert with a song called ‘40’, with words taken from the 40th psalm. He wrote this about that part of Scripture:

Psalm 40 is interesting in that it suggests a time in which grace will replace Karma, and love will replace the strict law of Moses. I love that thought. David, who committed some of the most selfish as well as selfless acts, was depending on it. That the Scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me. Now it’s a source of great comfort.

It’s through David that we learn an important lesson about being a follower of God: You don’t have to live a perfect life to be a person of faith. Isn’t that good news? That’s a liberating thing to hear as we face our own problems, our own brokenness, our own sin.

Whatever else he did, David lived a life of faith that mattered to God. He was flawed and sinful and violent, but he also loved his God and was loved back. That’s how he ends up in our text this morning—in the New Testament book of Acts.

The apostle Paul is giving a history lesson to some Jewish leaders of the day, and at the end he says this: ‘After removing Saul, who ruled forty years, God made David their king. He said of David: I have found him to be a man after my own heart.’

We say that every so often, don’t we? When someone does something that we really like, or crave or hope for, one of our responses can be: That’s a person after my own heart. This is where the phrase comes from.

We talk about people having heart, too. Michael Phelps has been all over the place this last week. Eight gold medals in one summer—15 in all. We learned a lot about his life and family during the games this year. Single mom, loving sisters, a drunk driving charge after the Athens games that got him back on track. In an interview he said that after his arrest he knew that he needed to give his whole heart to swimming if he was going to be true to his talent.

We learn a lot about love and commitment and restoration and achievement from Michael Phelps’ story.

What do we learn from David’s story?

God values a heart that is reckless in its love for him: In one story David was so completely absorbed in worship that he danced in the streets half-naked. His wife scolded him but David had bigger things than propriety on his mind. He was blissfully aware of God’s love and provision, and reckless in his expression of gratitude and worship.

The other thing we learn is this: We don’t have to be perfect to be followers of God. David’s story proves that in so many ways. In this election season, with each candidate trying so hard not to mess up—or to keep past mistakes from coming out, it’s pretty clear that David wouldn’t have made it through the primaries. But we’re not running or competing for God’s love—it comes to us freely, extravagantly, lavishly. David’s life proves to us that we don’t have to be perfect to be the people of God.

But that still leaves a question: How do we live ‘after God’s own heart?’ What is God’s heart like?

God’s heart is a heart that


As we move into a new year together as a family of faith—as a Christian community—the call is on each one of our lives is to gather as people who are after God’s own heart. As new arrivals to London seek us out in this season, and as we invite people to come and be a part of this church, it’s important that we’re on the same page in terms of what this church is about.

We are a community—a gathered collection of broken people from all over the world—we are a church after God’s own heart. The call to each one of us is to dig deep—to look around and to look to God—for the capacity to Love, to Forgive, to Challenge and to Reconcile.

That’s what we learn from the mighty King David. And that’s my prayer for all of us. Amen.